Illegal trade in Saban iguana confirmed

October 11, 2022

Illegal trade in iguanas within the Dutch Kingdom came to light in 2020. Now some of the traded iguanas have been genetically assessed which confirms their illegal origin. Iguanas native to Saba are currently sold as pets on several continents.

Iguanas are, among pet animals, one of the most kept reptile species. The trade in iguanas of the species Iguana iguana is extensive and, like many other species, is regulated worldwide by the CITES convention. This means that the export and import of iguanas requires permits that are checked by authorities. This inspection also occurs within the Dutch Kingdom (consisting of the countries Aruba, Curaçao, St. Maarten and the Netherlands to which the special municipalities Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius also belong).

Green iguanas not only green

Iguana iguana or - its unfortunate name - the ‘green iguana’ is widespread throughout Central and South America, including several islands within the Caribbean. Within this large distributional range, adult animals look different from area-to-area. Contrary to what the name suggests, they are certainly not only green. For example, there are areas where iguanas become grayer, white, or orange as they get older and mature. In addition, there are only a few areas/islands where iguanas become (partially) black, which mainly concern islands in the Caribbean Lesser Antilles. This also includes the iguana population of Saba, which lies in the Windward Islands, or SSS Islands, within the Dutch Kingdom.

Black iguanas from Saba offered online

Since several years, various international animal dealers are offering (partially) black iguanas online for sale. Since this 'type' of iguana only occurs in a few Caribbean areas, various experts have conducted research into the origin of these traded animals. In 2020, analysis of the CITES-permit database, as well as interviews with selling parties revealed that the iguana population of Saba is their origin, with the animals being traded illegally via St. Maarten.

The CITES authorities of Saba have never granted a CITES-export license for live iguanas, while certain dealers have revealed how they acquired the animals. It is clear from interviews, and one granted CITES-export permit, that in one case the dealer himself went to collect the animals on St. Maarten. This case was presented in a major Dutch newspaper article from 2020. However, notwithstanding the presented evidence, genetic data was still lacking that could conclusively prove the Saban origin of the traded iguanas.

Genetic materials examined

Since 2020, the genetic material of two black iguanas from the US pet trade have been examined; the dealer indicated the purported Saban descent of these animals during the 2020 study. Analyses of these samples now confirm beyond any doubt that the traded iguanas are indeed of pure Saban descent. That proves that they were either themselves taken from Saba, or that they are descendants of animals from purely Saba origin.

Urgent improvements needed within current procedures and controls

The presence of Saban iguanas in the international pet trade is now scientifically proven and shows the need for urgent improvements to the permit application procedures and controls regarding licensing for iguana exports. Recently, iguana experts of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have proposed a temporary trade halt for iguanas both from and between Lesser Antillean islands until such time as when measures have been implemented to effectively counter illegal trade.